Programming Futility

by Mark Fearing

TV FICTION PACKAGE: A reality executive gives the presentation of his career. 2,201 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.

Marty Nordin was sweating at his desk. He had a presentation due in 10 minutes and it wasn’t just unfinished but he hadn’t even begun to write it. It would be his last opportunity to keep his job. Because he couldn’t count on the shows he had developed to save him.

Some 13-year-old boy in Norway was getting 19 million views per week on a YouTube video while Marty’s series on the Watch-it! Network were lucky to attract 35,000. Fuck. And what was the kid doing that was so goddamned compelling? Playing a kazoo and simultaneously playing a video game. Crap.

Marty was 48 years old and had spent his entire adult life trying to create a hit TV series. To be honest, he’d really spent most of that time just trying to stay employed. But making a hit was the goal. He had tried at one point to develop quality dramas, but he had ended up in reality shows just like everybody else with half a brain. Scripted TV was deemed too formal. Viewers no longer wanted beginnings, middles and ends. They wanted chaotic stuff stitched together.

He could thank the cable industry’s package pricing for the proliferation of channels like the Watch-it! Network that get less than 50,000 viewers. Marty was responsible for developing Eat-it! where several people ate gross stuff and made each other eat gross stuff and then talked about eating gross stuff. And he launched Play-it!, a show with a room of “famous” people with very different POVs on life playing board games until it disintegrated into name calling and brawling. Shove-it! didn’t even make it past pilot but Marty felt it had more dramatic arc than anything on YouTube, dammit.

Now the pressure was on. New bosses. Ratings that sucked. A media landscape that just didn’t make sense anymore. The channel was being shopped to whichever buyer took control of a chunk of Congruent which was the giant corporation that owned the corporation that owned the Watch-it! Network. Between the corporate bullshit and the kids on YouTube, Marty was starting to think it time to get a real estate license. How long did that take?

But he had a meeting in seven minutes now. And to fully understand Marty’s insecurity: he was supposed to pitch shows for possible development and he didn’t have anything. Nada. Less than “shit in a basket” as his dad used to say and it still didn’t make sense to Marty.

He’d been doing this routine for almost six years now. Develop, pitch, get a pilot made. If it sinks, it’s done. If it flies, or at least doesn’t hit the ground with too big of a flop, he hands it off to a producer or production company that can make it. But for the past five months, he had honestly been doing nothing.

Marty’s sometime girlfriend was sure he was just depressed. Marty, however, was certain he did nothing because it was qualitatively better than doing anything. Programming futility. That was a good title for a not-self-help TV show. But now the roosters were hatching or the chicks were roosting or some other farm-related poultry bit of wisdom he’d heard growing up. He supposed it wasn’t fair to keep taking Congruent’s paycheck if he no longer did the work. But when the best dramas and comedies with multimillion dollar budgets streamed for 2 weeks and then vanished from cultural conscious, while his budgets barely allowed for lighting, why bother?

Marty started to walk towards the conference room. His newest boss would be there. Probably his new boss, too. Maybe some new intern who would soon get Marty’s job if Marty fucked up.

Suddenly, his nervousness transformed into elation. He had a goal. Marty had always been good at talking, C’mon, who works as an executive in Hollywood who isn’t? He’d loved the challenges early in his career where he’d talked his way into opportunities.

Well, here was a huge opportunity to make it through the meeting without having done any work. At all. That’s exactly what Marty thought this whole programming futility deserved. When a kid in Norway gets more weekly eyeballs than 99% of anything on TV, maybe this goddamned network mess needs to be tossed in the air.

The presentation would consist of whatever the fuck came to Marty’s mind. And if it blew-up and this was his last day on the job, he could weather it despite a hefty car payment and a ridiculous mortgage on a one-bedroom condo in Santa Monica. He knew games have to end sometime and for the first moment in months and even years, Marty was looking forward to whatever was about to happen. Good or bad.

Brian Benson sat at the head of the conference table talking on his cell. That’s the Brian Benson, son of Bane Benson and heir to the entertainment juggernaut that was Congruent which owned Best Entertainment which owned the Watch-it! Network. Marty was surprised Brian attended such meetings. The scion must have flown in from his private island just for Marty’s presentation. But why?

For a moment Marty was sure he was going to be let go right there and then. This deflated him a bit because he wouldn’t get to play his game. Then Marty’s new Boss, C. Michael Dunn, started to talk.

“Thank you Brian for attending. It’s a real honor to have you present and completely unexpected. Anyway, Marty’s here to unveil what the network has been working on. I’ve been so busy streamlining for the possible sale that I’ve only been in touch with him a few times. But Marty is our lead guy in development. He’s been behind every awesome show from this network for the last dozen years.”

Marty couldn’t let that error stand. “For the past nine years, and only the past five as lead,” Marty said as he scanned the packed room and greeted everybody with high energy and a big smile.

Michael Dunn didn’t usually look so nervous. Marty wondered what was going on when suddenly Brian Benson started to speak in a booming voice as if he were at Dodgers Stadium with no mic.

“Thank you, Michael. And nice to meet you, Marty. I just flew in from St. Bastion, my island, and I only do that for something this important. I hate to be blunt, but who am I kidding? That’s what I get paid to do and that’s why Dad put me in this position before his stroke. I’m ready to close this whole network down. We have an offer for Best Entertainment but they don’t want the channel as part of the sale. So Marty, I hate to say it, but, everybody at this network is in your hands now. If there’s value to keeping it afloat, I need to see it so show me where we’re headed.”

Marty kept smiling but couldn’t focus his eyes. His game wasn’t supposed to cost everyone their jobs. His elation turned to terror. His mind flashed to the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. The beach had to be stormed.

“I’m very excited for this opportunity…” Marty started with the B-roll. Blah-blah and this-and-that and can’t-wait-to-see-your-reactions. “And if you have a question, just speak-up or raise a hand as I get going. I don’t want a great idea to get missed because you forgot it waiting for me to shut my big mouth.”

Laughs all around except for Brian Benson who lifted his hand like a priest offering a half-hearted blessing and spoke very loud again.

“All well and good, but it seems like you are delaying here. Let’s get to your shows, son.” Did Brian Benson just call Marty “son”? Marty was at least five years older. Was it meant as a compliment?

“Don’t worry, I’ll get to them,” he told the assembled executives. “I’ve been working on these around the clock now for months. But I also know that great shows come from good ideas that are allowed to germinate with input and assistance from everyone in this room.”

Marty impressed himself and at the same time wanted to vomit.

C. Michael Dunn chimed in, “We pride ourselves on a very collaborative…”

Brian Benson’s voice boomed again. “That’s great and I’d love it all the more if indeed this network got even 50,000 viewers. But, again, I want to hear about your shows. That’s why I’m here.”

Marty smiled even broader. It was time. He started in.

“A TV show. What does a TV show really mean anymore? It’s not just on TV, and most people don’t watch it at the specified time. So what we have now is a completely different beast than just 10 years ago, much less 50.”

Heads nodded. Brian Benson looked impatient. Marty just kept talking.

Saving Private Ryan was a great movie and who can forget its first 15 minutes? Very affecting. Well, we all have Saving Private Ryan moments. We all have a beach to storm. The first show is called, Storm The Beach.”

Marty wasn’t thinking. He was just trying to put concepts together.

“Whatever it is they have to do, they do it while storming a beach where the other contestants are throwing mildly harmless munitions at them. Caterers are trying to cater, bakers are trying to bake, salespeople are trying to sell. They need to get their work done and delivered to the top of the beach before time runs out and before they collect too many penalty points. There’s also tasks to earn bonus points… You get the big idea.”

Not bad. One done — and no one looked shocked.

Brian Benson’s cell rang. He picked it up and turned it off. “Sorry about that. So are there singers trying to sing while they storm the beach?”

“Good question! Lot of details to work out, but the big idea really resonates,” Marty replied, moving right along. “OK. Next up is…”

Then Marty described not two more, not three more, but a full dozen new concepts. He pitched every combination of clichéd reality show he could think of. He ran the gamut: dogs, cats, vets, lumberjacks, homeless people looking for work and working people forced to be homeless.

Finally, Marty’s throat grew dry. He looked much more exhausted than if he’d actually done the work for this meeting. Everyone looked concerned at his appearance. C. Michael Dunn looked so worried that Marty thought his boss was going to pass out first.

Then Brian Benson stood up. His three assistants stood up with him. Some other people at the table stood up because they thought they were supposed to. “Look.” Brian Benson’s voice bellowed. “I really appreciate all the ideas you pitched. I recognize the work you must have put in to this presentation. But here’s the thing — just another network of reality shows is no good for us. Did you know that some kids on YouTube get 25 million views a week? So what the hell can a bunch of Hollywood executives do if that’s what viewers want? I heard no ideas from you radical enough to matter. What does this huge corporation and this entire network have that will help us in this fight? I’m sorry but I’m pulling the — “

WAIT!” ordered Marty. He looked around the table at all the people who were about to be sending out their resumés. “I was saving this. It’s pretty radical. Sort of sci-fi. My boss C. Michael doesn’t even know about it yet. It’s kind of unheard of. I think this will change your mind. What makes us unique? What doesn’t that kid in Norway with the kazoo have that we have?”

Brian Benson furrowed his brow. Everyone furrowed their brows.

“A network. And, Brian, you’re the one writing the checks. But maybe it’s time that the network itself becomes the show? What if what happens here and how we meet to make or not make a show is the show? Airing 24-7. We’ll have cameras everywhere. We are the show. The show is the show. Human interest, success and failure, voting for a greenlight. I bet viewers will love seeing that. The Watch-it! Network literally becomes The Watch It Network. We scrap all boundaries and expectations. We sell sponsorships that happen in real time. We book talent and get immediate responses from viewers. Hell, we can get that kid from Norway out here and have him pitch. And no matter if there’s a show greenlighted, we have our show.”

Brian Benson smiled an uncomfortably creepy smile that you only develop hen you own your own island. “Get the cameras installed. I’m keeping this network and you all keep your jobs. For now. Marty, amazing idea to make my network a show.”

Brian Benson left the room. All his entourage left the room with him. Everyone else began to recover.

“What just happened?” C. Michael Dunn asked.

“We kept our jobs,” said Marty, knowing he had just stormed the beach. He had risen to a challenge. Everybody in the conference room began to clap, and Marty had no idea what was going to happen next. And that was the best thing to happen to him in years.

Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season

About The Author:
Mark Fearing
Mark Fearing is an author and illustrator who has worked in TV and New Media for Sony, Disney, Nickelodeon, Freemantle, Adobe, Apple, Dreamworks Online and Microsoft. His children’s books have been published by Chronicle Books, Disney-Hyperion, Dial Books, HMH Books, and soon by Knopf Books and Candlewick Press.

About Mark Fearing

Mark Fearing is an author and illustrator who has worked in TV and New Media for Sony, Disney, Nickelodeon, Freemantle, Adobe, Apple, Dreamworks Online and Microsoft. His children’s books have been published by Chronicle Books, Disney-Hyperion, Dial Books, HMH Books, and soon by Knopf Books and Candlewick Press.

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